Tuesday, 19 November 2013

Milestones in gaming #3: Red Box Dungeons and Dragons

The so-called 'Red Box' Dungeons and Dragons set was also known as Basic Dungeons and Dragons. I received this as my Christmas present in December 1983 from my parents. At the time I'd been showing some interest in the Advanced version of the game, having already become embroiled in the Fighting Fantasy game books of Steve Jackson and Ian Livingstone (see previous post). I think they may have wanted me to get into a hobby that might stimulate my intellect somewhat, as there was some concern I was going to flunk my Common Entrance exams.

[Note to readers unfamiliar with the UK private school system: the Common Entrance exam or CE is sat by pupils in the equivalent of Year 8 (12/13 years) in UK state school parlance. It is intended to help private schools to measure the intellectual capability of applicants for entry in Year 9, which is the typical starting age group at most UK private schools, although many now take pupils at 11+ and set their own exams. It features a range of papers on most key subjects, with the exam papers then sent for marking to the school(s) the candidate is applying for.]

I think the feeling was that the game might help me to improve my Maths grades,which were at that point less than impressive. With my Latin and Religious Studies also in the basement, things were looking bleak. It seems obvious at the time that the Red Box was a good starting point and indeed, it was a clever marketing ploy by TSR, as it made the game far more accessible than Advanced, which was impenetrable to most (and written like a tax manual).

Basic featured two booklets, one for players and one for Dungeon Masters, and also came with a set of polyhedral dice and a starting module (mine had B2 - The Keep on the Borderlands). Basic was also written in easy to understand language, with many of the core game concepts introduced via a step by step solo adventure. Finally, the game had great art from Larry Elmore, including the fantastic box cover painting. Elmore went on to do even better work with the Dragonlance modules and for me became the definitive artist for the game.

I had massive fun with this. It was the first RPG I owned, but I quickly added to it the blue Expert set, which brought new monsters, the idea of hex crawl wilderness adventures, and the Isle of Dread module.

This RPG quickly caught on as the accessory of choice for many of the kids in my year at school. As we were in boarding school, we frequently had to fill our Sundays with something, as the school had limited ideas about how to entertain pupils on weekends, other than with sport, cross country rambles and church. Dungeons and Dragons leaped into this vacuum with alacrity and we soon had a number of boys running their own homebrew campaigns. It even became possible to move from one campaign to another with your character, which I understand is what happened originally with the early campaigns in the US in the 1970s.

Bear in mind that at this stage we had no access to computer games of any sort. The first personal computers for home use were only just appearing. Hence, in many ways, the game represented a sort of pen and paper computer game which we could readily access at school, where resources were limited. We didn't use miniatures, and we had all gone our separate ways by the time the Companion set came out (in 1985 IIRC).

Few characters ever got to Lord level (9+) and most died at 1-2. Indeed, I only got a character past 6th level in Pathfinder last year! The attrition rate amongst low level PCs was high, but then they didn't take long to roll up. You would regularly see an AC 9 Magic User wandering into a dungeon with nothing but a dagger, a couple of hit points, and two first level spells to rub together. A kobold with a knife became serious opposition for him! There was one guy who ran an Advanced campaign, but he was a Maths whizz, went on to Eton, and is now a millionaire, so I guess that says it all.

Next time - I discover White Dwarf...


  1. Hang on, I thought that B2 was included with the 1981 basic set, not this one? There is a short adventure in the dungeon master's book but it's not B2. That said, I do know that a lot of these boxes were sold with different or extra contents so perhaps you had one of those.

  2. Being 1000s of years older than Stuart, the sapling that he is, let alone El Green, who was not even a small seed when I first got my hands on the original Blue Book for D&D - waaay before Basic D&D of the 1980s..... but yes - those days - we were younger, it was new, and being 'well young', there is a nostalgia factor I am sure at work. Those games - despite their anomalies (low AC good (?), rolling high good - unless it was a save - then roll low! etc)... were accessible (relatively) compared to what came after: Rolemaster....then 3e D&D/ PF (which is mathematically complicated!!)

    But on a matter of fact: Stuart - you got to level 13 with your Barbarian Artemisia before El Ric bailed and went ooooop norf n all waaay back over 2 years ago.....when we suspended the campaign Kingmaker for our newbie - so we started (abortively for a while) Carrion Crown. (Which was a shame since we should have simply ploughed on!!)

  3. and sadly - despite running PF up till level 15 recently - or Advanced D&D up to level 9 (sixth form ended and the group - up to 12 players sometimes - went their separate ways!!) - despite all that - no bags of LOOT for me. Well - other than the virtual kind - but generally El Kel is too MEAN with giving us any swag of note! Bah humbug!

    1. Just you wait Ferguson, you'll be getting some "loot" soon enough!

    2. LOOT! EACH! 500gold crowns please! Me wanna GRIMMoire! GRIMMMMMMM! Not sure if Stuart can make it this Friday though, him having been laid low with a nasty lurgy n all!! :S

  4. Waiting for the pasta to cook..... moth to a flame....

    READ loads of AD&D modules in the early 80s. Never ran any of them (to memory) as they were...rather I stole ideas and used them... like the Against the Giants.... SO DULL as written! But liked the idea of parts of it - and incorporated giant slavers (with drow behind them) as villains - but it was more sandboxy - and had epic encounter zones - not the lame room after room of giants! Ridiculous. As usual for any game I ran then/ now, the pcs were totally over-tooled - dwarf fighter with gauntlets of ogre strength, belt of giant strength and a dwarven hammer at 9th level.... epic - but annoying!! :)